What Is Autism?

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Emily L. Williams
Emily L. Williams: Popularity, mixed media collage, 2008; from the book Drawing Autism, a collection of work by more than fifty artists with autism. Edited by Jill Mullin and with an introduction by Temple Grandin, it will be published in a new edition by Akashic Books in 2014.

I never learned to type. The best I can do is hunt and peck with two fingers while looking at the keyboard. Instead of touch-typing, I was taught how to work with metal: shape flashings, solder wires, drill into tin. Learning such skills traces back to the fifth grade at Public School 187 in Queens. My teacher, Mrs. L., divided the class into those able to undertake a so-called “academic curriculum” and ultimately attend college, and those like me, only fit for vocational training, destined to work in factories or repair shops.

Mrs. L. was a squat, middle-aged woman with a dour mien. She made clear to us what marked a promising student: neat penmanship, proper posture, and sharp attention to her lessons. It did not take her long to conclude that I lacked all of these indicators.

I spent much of the class day looking out the window at our concrete playground, dreaming about stickball games, watching in my mind’s eye a Spaulding rocket far beyond the outfield. When not occupied with home runs, I studied a girl with a pageboy cut and a fetching smile. I swiveled in my seat and scratched my chair on the linoleum floor in an attempt to get her to look at me. Instead, all I got were sharp reprimands from Mrs. L. Moreover, my handwriting was poor. It didn’t seem worth the effort to perfect a capital J or G, with all of the curlicues of Parkman script. When the bell rang at 3:00 PM, I vaulted through the door, racing to the playground where sides were quickly chosen for the stickball game.

The first parent–teacher conference was held at the end of September, and Mrs. L. rendered her judgment. “He is not college material,” she said flatly to my mother and father. A brief listing of all of my deficiencies followed, including shifting in my seat, looking out the window, making noise with my chair, and sloppy penmanship. I lacked intelligence, motivation, and focus. Such pupils were best served by learning a trade. So it would be metal shop instead of typing class.

My parents listened quietly to Mrs. L.’s assessment. After they left, my father turned to my mother and offered a different conclusion: “He has shpilkes.” My mother nodded knowingly. Shpilkes is a Yiddish word that denotes “ants in your pants.” The restless traits I displayed in the classroom were familiar from my behavior at home. As far as my parents were concerned, shpilkes was nothing out of the ordinary for a boy in fifth grade, except…


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